by David Silverberg
On July 11, longtime county observers expect Collier County Commissioner Chris Hall (R-District 2) to introduce a “Bill of Rights Sanctuary County” ordinance that will attempt to take Collier County out of the authority of the US federal government.
If the Board of Commissioners approves putting the proposed ordinance on the agenda on Tuesday, it may be advertised as a county ordinance for a vote at the next regular meeting on Tuesday, July 25.
This will mark the second time that extreme conservative activists have attempted to nullify federal law in Collier County, Fla.
On July 13, 2021, the Board voted down an identical ordinance by a vote of 3 to 2.
Like its predecessor, the current proposed ordinance argues that the federal government is encroaching on citizens’ rights and privileges, particularly through executive orders. It attempts to nullify federal authority by allowing lawsuits against county officials.
“Collier County has the right to be free from the commanding hand of the federal government and has the right to refuse to cooperate with federal government officials in response to unconstitutional federal government measures, and to proclaim a Bill of Rights Sanctuary for law-abiding citizens in its County,” it proclaims.
If passed, Collier County would effectively secede from the United States, lose the protection of US law and essentially be rendered lawless.
The proposed ordinance
The proposed ordinance has 13 establishing clauses (paragraphs beginning “whereas,” that state the facts as viewed by the drafters). (A link to download the full ordinance is at the end of this article.)
These paragraphs argue that the federal government is increasingly encroaching on citizens’ rights and privileges, particularly through executive orders that are not based on legislation. It then goes on to list a variety of laws and precedents that the drafters believe are being violated.
The second section lists the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution.
It is in the third section that the draft gets to the substance of the proposal. It defines an “unlawful act” as any “federal act, law, order, rule, or regulation, which violates or unreasonably restricts, impedes, or impinges upon an individual’s Constitutional rights including, but not limited to, those enumerated in Amendments 1 through 10 to the United States Constitution.”
Such federal acts will be “invalid in Collier County and shall not be recognized by Collier County, and shall be considered null, void and of no effect in Collier County, Florida.”
The fourth section prohibits the county and its officials from enforcing “unlawful acts” as defined by the ordinance. Any official who violates the ordinance can be sued in court and punished under the county code.
The fifth and sixth sections hold that if the ordinance conflicts with any other law, the more restrictive rule will apply and that even if sections of it are invalidated in court, the rest of the ordinance will remain in force.
The previous effort
The new proposed ordinance closely tracks its predecessor, which was introduced in June 2021 and defeated by a 3 to 2 vote of the Board of Commissioners on July 13, 2021. It was drafted by lawyer Kristina Heuser who is of counsel to the Naples firm of Boatman Ricci.
It was introduced by Commissioner William McDaniel Jr. (R-District 5) and supported by a group of allied individuals that included retired firefighter James Rosenberger, his wife Carol DiPaolo, anti-COVID vaccination activist Beth Sherman, and Keith Flaugh, head of the Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative education advocacy organization.
It was also backed by a variety of officials and legislators, including Rep. Byron Donalds (R-19-Fla.), state Rep. Bob Rommel (R-currently-81, then-106, Naples) and the county’s top law enforcement officer, Sheriff Kevin Rambosk.
The same coalition is likely to back the current proposed ordinance.
Some things have changed, however.
The composition of the County Commission changed with the 2022 election of commissioners Chris Hall (R-District 2) and Dan Kowal (R-District 4). Both were endorsed by conservative grocer and farmer Francis Alfred “Alfie” Oakes III and backed by the Citizens Awake Now political action committee he heads.
Another difference was passage on April 11, 2023 of a Collier County Health Freedom Ordinance, prohibiting mask and vaccination mandates in the county, duplicating state law. Passage of that and an accompanying resolution—although both were heavily revised and diluted—likely emboldened the effort to reintroduce the current ordinance.
At the time of its first introduction, the United States was still in the midst of the COVID pandemic, which fed advocates’ anti-vaccination passion, paranoia and conspiracy theories. It was also closer in time to the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection and attempted coup at the US Capitol. At the time of the 2021 debate, ordinance advocates feared federal law enforcement officers arriving in Florida to arrest Jan. 6 rioters and mentioned that in their arguments for passage. Since then, 91 arrests have indeed taken place in Florida, more than any other state.
Analysis: Ordinance consequences
What remain unchanged since its first introduction are the potential consequences of the proposed ordinance. These were enumerated and discussed by residents and County Attorney Jeffrey Klatzkow during the 2021 consideration and vote.
The ordinance would bring the orderly functioning of Collier County to a halt. Any resident could bring suit against virtually any action by any county official or law enforcement officer if the resident argued his or her constitutional rights were being violated. The officials would be personally liable for providing their own legal defense, potentially beggaring them for simply running the county.
“The big issue here is not going to be damages,” Klatzkow told commissioners at the time. “It’s going to be attorney’s fees. There is an incentive for attorneys to bring actions under this because every hour they put in is an hour they can bill.”
Exactly what would constitute a violation and how that violation would be determined remain unclear in the current draft as in the first version. Attorneys testifying during the 2021 debate pointed out the ordinance’s vagueness, unenforceability and unconstitutionality.
Since it would put Collier County outside federal law, the ordinance would jeopardize all of the county’s federal grants and benefits, which are so numerous that they ran to five single-spaced pages when presented to the Commission during the debate. It would also likely make the county ineligible for federal assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the event of a hurricane or other natural disaster.
Since it does not recognize federal authority—including federal courts—enforcing the ordinance would be a Catch-22. For enforcement, county authorities would have to refer cases to federal courts that they did not recognize and these courts would hand down verdicts that the county wouldn’t recognize because it won’t accept federal law.
A way around this was never satisfactorily explained during the 2021 debate.
The ordinance would interfere with federal law enforcement in the county, including immigration regulations and criminal investigations.
It would complicate commerce as businesses both inside and outside the county would have to deal with a jurisdiction that didn’t recognize any federal commercial rules including health and safety, labor, and taxation regulations.
The ordinance could interfere with the orderly administration of federal programs like Social Security, Medicare and food assistance on which county residents are dependent.
In addition to all these impacts within the county, passage of the ordinance would make Collier County a national laughingstock, if not an international pariah. Potential visitors and guests would hesitate—to put it mildly—traveling to a destination that didn’t recognize national law and was effectively lawless.
Given its obvious unconstitutionality, the ordinance would immediately be subject to court challenge and the county would have to pay the costs of defending it—likely in federal courts whose authority the county would be fighting not to recognize.
“It is so unconstitutional in so many ways I would say, ‘Let’s go out and have a beer and forget about this,’” said David Millstein, a retired civil rights attorney who also taught civil rights law and served as former head of the Collier County American Civil Liberties Union, at the time.
Commentary: Stopping stupidity at the source
On the day that the Board of Commissioners defeated the first ordinance, it also unanimously passed a resolution stating that: “…The County Commission of Collier County, Florida reaffirms its loyalty, its patriotism and its allegiance to the United States Constitution, its Bill of Rights, its Amendments and the duly constituted laws, acts, orders, rules, and regulations of the United States of America and that these have force in Collier County as they do in the rest of the United States, now and in perpetuity.”
That resolution should reassure all who are worried about the applicability of the Bill of Rights in Collier County, Fla.
There is no need for a “Bill of Rights Sanctuary County” because the United States itself is a sanctuary for the Bill of Rights in every jurisdiction and in all places where American law holds sway.
What is more, the Commission rejected it after fully debating it in 2021 and examining all its aspects and implications. The arguments then also apply now.
The clear and obvious fact is that this proposed ordinance is nothing more than a legalistic expression of rage and paranoia ungrounded in actual law or reality from people who simply don’t want to follow rules they don’t like. It is part of a wave of politically-driven sanctuary proposals that have cropped up around the country.
The ordinance is not formally on the published agenda of the next meeting of the Collier County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday morning.
However, as happened in 2021, it may be slipped onto the agenda without prior notice. If the Commission chooses to schedule formal debate, the ordinance will have to be advertised and is likely to formally appear for a vote on the agenda of the next scheduled meeting on Tuesday, July 25.
Meeting update - ordinance in limbo after public opposition
Disclosure: The author testified against the proposed ordinance.
The fate of a “Bill of Rights Sanctuary County Ordinance” proposal is uncertain after it drew overwhelming opposition from county residents at yesterday’s Collier County Board of Commissioners meeting.
In what would otherwise be a quiet, mid-July Board meeting, seven speakers expressed opposition to the idea of a sanctuary ordinance and only a single one defended the concept. A ninth speaker addressed personal topics.
The ordinance has not yet been formally introduced and was not on the agenda for the meeting. Nonetheless, speakers were allowed to make statements on the proposed ordinance by Board Chair Commissioner Rick LoCastro (R-District 1), under a provision for public comments on future agendas.
If the ordinance is introduced and the Board chooses to proceed, its consideration will be advertised and appear on the agenda of the meeting when a vote will be taken. The next regular meeting of the Board is scheduled for July 25. Agendas are posted on the Board’s website about a week before the meeting.
However, Commissioner Burt Saunders (R-District 3) urged the Board not to take up the matter during the summer when many residents are absent. LoCastro noted that people can call into meetings to testify if they’re not on site.
Following the discussion, it was unclear whether the proposed ordinance would be introduced.
The ordinance as written would nullify federal authority in Collier County, making all county officials and law enforcement officers subject to lawsuits for any alleged violation of the US Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
The first of the eight speakers in opposition to the ordinance was Tamara Mitchell, a Collier County resident, who pointed out that the ordinance, which was first proposed in 2021, “was illegal then, it’s illegal now. A state cannot nullify federal law” and Collier County does not have that authority. She pointed out that the ordinance would result in chaos and the county would not be able to retain its employees.
“There is no need to have a county sanctuary for the Bill of Rights since the United States is a sanctuary for the Bill of Rights in every jurisdiction,” she said. “Why waste time on a proposal that is clearly illegal, will create many serious problems and is inherently unnecessary?”
She was followed by this author, who echoed her arguments on the proposed ordinance and added that debating it would simply be a repeat of 2021, would waste everyone’s time and would be unnecessarily divisive.
Jane Schlechtweg, chair of the Collier County Democratic Party, pointed out that the ordinance even violated the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States taken by everyone present at the outset of the meeting.
Susan Cone, a county resident, warned of the economic consequences of ordinance, which would make the county “dysfunctional and lawless.”
Kate Tardiff, another resident, held up a Key West “Conch Republic” passport. It was an artifact of the time in 1982 when the Florida island seceded from the United States—“and lasted exactly one minute,” Tardiff pointed out. At least, she said, “that was tongue-in-cheek.”
But Tardiff had a serious message: “If this anti-American ordinance is passed we may as well declare our secession from the United States of America,” she said. However, she declared the ordinance “DOA, dead on arrival.”
Todd Truax, who runs an elder care facility in Collier County, noted that the ordinance would nullify all sorts of federal rules in the county like the kind he had to obey governing healthcare and employment. He asked: what would happen to the constitutional amendments after the Bill of Rights, numbers 11 to 27? Would they simply be ignored? Would all kinds of federal regulations be dropped? “Would this allow me to own slaves? Because I have some labor challenges,” he said. “It’s preposterous.”
Earlier in the meeting there had been discussion of an ordinance to ban excessive sound from cars modified to magnify engine noise. Under the ordinance, could this be regulated? “My noisy, orange Mustang Fury GT is my expression of free speech,” he pointed out.
Katherine Cunningham, a member of Moms Demand Action, a group opposing gun violence, noted that the proposed ordinance would nullify a variety of measures meant to protect the public. When first raised in 2021, the ordinance’s focus “was to prevent the enforcement of gun laws in Collier County,” she said. Groups pushing to nullify federal laws were attempting to negate gun safety and red flag laws despite their effectiveness in preventing gun violence.
“This bill reflects an attempt to block bipartisan gun safety laws passed with overwhelming support by voters and to block the courts’ interpretation of the Constitution to the detriment of public safety,” she said.
Melanie Wicker, a county resident, urged the commissioners to emulate Marshal Matt Dillon from the western television show “Gunsmoke” and uphold the rule of law even when townspeople were angry and wanted to take the law into their own hands.
“When people feel threatened and angry they can start to act like a posse gone bad,” she said. She argued that it is up to law enforcement authorities to administer the law equitably and the ordinance would force Collier County’s Sheriff Kevin Rambosk to choose which laws are constitutional and which were not, putting him in jeopardy.
“I hope this ordinance will never come before this board but if it does, please follow the example of Marshal Dillon and [Commissioner Burt] Saunders [who opposed it in 2021] and uphold the rule of law and abide by the Constitution as it is written. Vote no to vigilantism. Vote no to this ordinance,” she concluded.
The proponent - Kristina Heuser
The sole speaker in favor of the ordinance was Kristina Heuser, an attorney advising the Naples law firm of Boatman Ricci, who drafted the 2021 ordinance and, presumably, the latest version.
She characterized the reaction to the proposed ordinance as “a lot of hyperbole and fearmongering” and said that it was much narrower in scope.
“The ordinance makes it unlawful for the county to help the federal government in carrying out or executing unlawful or unconstitutional mandates of the federal government. So it’s not nullification, as we heard this morning, it’s not rendering willy-nilly just like federal law to be unconstitutional for you or that…we’re not going to abide by federal law in the county, it’s specifically saying that no willful official or employees will participate in carrying out or executing unconstitutional federal orders or mandates,” she said.
Heuser argued that the ordinance was based in settled federal law and the anti-commandeering principle and it had been upheld in federal courts. She said she looked forward to explaining this further at the next, July 25, meeting of the Board.
The entire half-hour discussion of the ordinance can be viewed online on the Collier County television channel. Discussion of the ordinance begins at mark 1:10 and concludes at 1:42.